"ARE you sure you want to do this?"
There are times you run off a cliff. It is like one of those Looney Tunes cartoons, where Wile E. Coyote sprints really hard and he's still running even though he's already gone off the cliff and then he stops and looks down and knows he will plummet and that there is nothing he can do to stop it.
But sometimes, maybe most times, it isn't that clear. It is dark and you are near the edge of the cliff but you're moving slowly, not sure what direction you're heading in. Your steps are tentative but they are still blind in the night. You don't realize how close you are to the edge, how the soft earth could give way, how you could just slip a bit and suddenly plunge into the dark.
This is when Mike knew that he and Tia were on that edge-when this installer, this young yah-dude with the rat-nest hair and the muscleless, overtattooed arms and the dirty, long fingernails, looked back at them and asked that damn question in a voice too ominous for his years.
Are you sure you want to do this...?
None of them belonged in this room. Sure, Mike and Tia Baye (pronounced byeas in good- bye) were in their own home, a split-level-cum-McMansion in the suburb of Livingston, but this bedroom had become enemy territory to them, strictly forbidden. There were still, Mike noticed, a surprising amount of remnants from the past. The hockey trophies hadn't been put away, but while they used to dominate the room, they now seemed to cower toward the back of the shelf. Posters of Jaromir Jagr and his most recent favorite Ranger hero, Chris Drury, were still up, but they'd been faded by the sun or maybe lack of attention.
Mike drifted back. He remembered how his son, Adam, used to read Goosebumpsand Mike Lupica's book about kid athletes who overcame impossible odds. He used to study the sports page like a scholar with the Talmud, especially the hockey stats. He wrote to his favorite players for autographs and hung them with Sticky Tack. When they'd go to Madison Square Garden, Adam would insist they wait by the players' exit on 32nd Street near Eighth Avenue so that he could get pucks autographed.
All of that was gone, if not from this room, then from their son's life.
Adam had outgrown those things. That was normal. He was no longer a child, barely an adolescent, really, moving too hard and too fast into adulthood. But his bedroom seemed reluctant to follow suit. Mike wondered if it was a bond to the past for his son, if Adam still found comfort in his childhood. Maybe a part of Adam still longed to return to those days when he wanted to be a physician, like his dear old dad, when Mike was his son's hero.
But that was wishful thinking.
The Yah-Dude Installer-Mike couldn't remember his name, Brett, something like that-repeated the question: "Are you sure?"
Tia had her arms crossed. Her face was stern-there was no give there. She looked older to Mike, though no less beautiful. There was no doubt in her voice, just a hint of exasperation.
"Yes, we're sure."
Mike said nothing.
Their son's bedroom was fairly dark, just the old gooseneck desk lamp was on. Their voices were a whisper, even though there was no chance that they'd be seen or heard. Their eleven-year-old daughter, Jill, was in school. Adam, their sixteen-year-old, was on his school's junior overnight trip. He hadn't wanted to go, of course-such things were too "lame" for him now-but the school made it mandatory and even the "slackiest" of his slacker friends would be there so they could all bemoan the lameness in unison.
"You understand how this works, right?"
Tia nodded in perfect unison to Mike's shaking his head.
"The software will record every keystroke your son makes," Brett said. "At the end of the day, the information is packaged and a report will be e-mailed to you. It will show you everything-every Web site visited, every e-mail sent or received, every instant message. If Adam does a PowerPoint or creates a Word document, it will show you that too. Everything. You could watch him live-time if you want. You just click this option over here."
He pointed to a small icon with the words LIVE SPY! in a red burst. Mike's eyes moved about the room. The hockey trophies mocked him. Mike was surprised that Adam had not put them away. Mike had played college hockey at Dartmouth. He was drafted by the New York Rangers, played for their Hartford team for a year, even got to play in two NHL games. He had passed on his love of hockey to Adam. Adam had started to skate when he was three. He became a goalie in junior hockey. The rusted goalpost was still outside on the driveway, the net torn from the weather. Mike had spent many a contented hour shooting pucks at his son. Adam had been terrific-a top college prospect for certain-and then six months ago, he quit.
Just like that. Adam laid down the stick and pads and mask and said he was done.
Was that where it began?
Was that the first sign of his decline, his withdrawal? Mike tried to rise above his son's decision, tried not to be like so many pushy parents who seemed to equate athletic skill with life success, but the truth was, the quitting had hit Mike hard.
But it had hit Tia harder.
"We are losing him," she said.
Mike wasn't as sure. Adam had suffered an immense tragedy-the suicide of a friend-and sure, he was working out some adolescent angst. He was moody and quiet. He spent all his time in this room, mostly on this wretched computer, playing fantasy games or instant-messaging or who knew what. But wasn't that true of most teenagers? He barely spoke to them, responding rarely, and when he did, with grunts. But again-was that so abnormal?
It was her idea, this surveillance. Tia was a criminal attorney with Burton and Crimstein in Manhattan. One of the cases she'd worked on involved a money launderer named Pale Haley. Haley had been nailed by the FBI when they'd eavesdropped on his Internet correspondences.
Brett, the installer, was the tech guy at Tia's law firm. Mike stared now at Brett's dirty fingernails. The fingernails were touching Adam's keyboard. That's what Mike kept thinking. This guy with these disgusting nails was in their son's room and he was having his way with Adam's most prized possession.
"Be done in a second," Brett said.
Mike had visited the E-SpyRight Web site and seen the first inducement in big, bold letters:
ARE YOUR CHILDREN BEING APPROACHED
BY CHILD MOLESTERS?
ARE YOUR EMPLOYEES STEALING FROM YOU?
and then, in even bigger and bolder letters, the argument that sold Tia:
YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO KNOW!
The site listed testimonials:
"Your product saved my daughter from this parent's worst nightmare- a sexual predator! Thanks, E-SpyRight!"
Bob- Denver, CO
"I found out my most trusted employee was stealing from our office. I couldn't have done it without your software!"
Kevin- Boston, MA
Mike had resisted.
"He's our son," Tia had said.
"I know that. Don't you think I know that?"
"Aren't you concerned?"
"Of course I'm concerned. But."
"But what? We're his parents." And then, as though rereading the ad, she said, "We have the right to know."
"We have the right to invade his privacy?"
"To protect him? Yes. He's our son."
Mike shook his head.
"We not only have the right," Tia said, stepping closer to him. "We have the responsibility."
"Did your parents know everything you did?"
"How about everything you thought? Every conversation with a friend?"
"That's what we're talking about here."
"Think about Spencer Hill's parents," she countered.
That stunned him into silence. They looked at each other.
She said, "If they could do it over again, if Betsy and Ron had Spencer back-"
"You can't do that, Tia."
"No, listen to me. If they had to do it over again, if Spencer was alive, don't you think they'd wish they'd kept a closer eye on him?"
Spencer Hill, a classmate of Adam's, had committed suicide four months ago. It had been devastating, of course, hitting Adam and his classmates hard. Mike reminded Tia of that fact.
"Don't you think that explains Adam's behavior?"
"To a point, yes. But you know he was already changing. That just sped things up."
"So maybe if we give him more room..."
"No," Tia said, her tone cutting off any debate. "That tragedy may make Adam's behavior more understandable-but it doesn't make it less dangerous. If anything, it's just the opposite."
Mike thought about that. "We should tell him," he said.
"Tell Adam we're monitoring his online behavior."
She made a face. "What's the point in that?"
"So he knows he's being watched."
"This isn't like putting a cop on your tail so you don't speed."
"It's exactly like that."
"He'll just do whatever it is he's doing at a friend's house or use an Internet cafe or something."
"So? You have to let him know. Adam puts his private thoughts on that computer."
Tia took a step closer to him and put a hand on his chest. Even now, even after all these years, her touch still had an effect on him. "He's in trouble, Mike," she said. "Don't you see that? Your son is in trouble. He might be drinking or doing drugs or who knows what. Stop burying your head in the sand."
"I'm not burying my head anywhere."
Her voice was almost a plea. "You want the easy way out. You're hoping, what, that Adam will just outgrow this?"
"That's not what I'm saying. But think about it. This is new technology. He puts his secret thoughts and emotions down there. Would you have wanted your parents to know all that about you?"
"It's a different world now," Tia said.
"You sure about that?"
"What's the harm? We're his parents. We want what's best for him."
Mike shook his head again. "You don't want to know a person's every thought," he said. "Some things should remain private."
She took her hand off him. "You mean, a secret?"
"Are you saying that a person is entitled to their secrets?"
"Of course they are."
She looked at him then, in a funny way, and he didn't much like it.
"Do you have secrets?" she asked him.
"That's not what I meant."
"Do you have secrets from me?" Tia asked again.
"No. But I don't want you to know my every thought either."
"And I don't want you to know mine."
They both stopped, on that line, before she stepped back.
"But if it's a choice of protecting my son or giving him his privacy," Tia said, "I'm going to protect him."
The discussion-Mike didn't want to classify it as an argument- lasted for a month. Mike tried to coax his son back to them. He invited Adam to the mall, the arcade, concerts even. Adam refused. He stayed out of the house until all hours, curfews be damned. He stopped coming down to eat dinner. His grades slipped. They managed to get him to visit a therapist once. The therapist thought that there might be depression issues. He suggested perhaps medication, but he wanted to see Adam again first. Adam pointedly refused.
When they insisted that he go back to the therapist, Adam ran away for two days. He wouldn't answer his mobile phone. Mike and Tia were frantic. It ended up that he'd just been hiding at a friend's house.
"We're losing him," Tia had argued again.
And Mike said nothing.
"In the end, we're just their caretakers, Mike. We get them for a little while and then they live their lives. I just want him to stay alive and healthy until we let him go. The rest will be up to him."
Mike nodded. "Okay, then."
"You sure?" she said.
"Neither am I. But I keep thinking about Spencer Hill."
He nodded again.
He looked at her. She gave him the crooked smile, the one he'd first seen on a cold autumn day at Dartmouth. That smile had cork-screwed into his heart and stayed there.
"I love you," she said.
"I love you too."
And with that they agreed to spy on their oldest child.